By Frank Blechman
I have written several times in this column that in political campaigns, there are really only two strategies: Keep the bums in, or throw the bums out. I have said that for a challenger or an incumbent, there should rarely be any question which campaign to run. I stand by that general framework, but want to take this week’s epistle to articulate some of the further structural considerations that go into the day-to-day operations and overall campaign strategy. I have thought that everybody already knows this stuff, but I have recently been asked questions suggesting that many don’t. I’ll start with the familiar and perhaps the obvious.
- Campaign managers are playing pinball. Get a high score, get to play again. Low score, out of luck. In other words, campaigns are short. Even with elections every year here in Virginia, managers are always angling for their next job, while paying some attention the current one. Winning is the goal. Winning big is a bonus. Innovation is rarely rewarded.
- Fundraisers want to raise money, spending as little as possible along the way. In-kind contributions are nice, but not nearly as useful as cash. Good wishes and lavish events put very little in the bank. Fundraisers’ goals are to vacuum up every cent in reach. They are not about where it comes from or where it gets spent. There is not and never will be enough.
- Operations managers and field coordinators want to get tasks done, often day-by-day. They are not in the business of long-term strategy.
- Candidates want to win. They would like to win with as little effort as possible, but will generally do whatever their managers and fundraisers tell them that they have to do.
Now, for some of the less obvious points:
- Managers want to be in control. They want to manage. They don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. Managers keep their candidates busy so they don’t have too much time to think. Managers may have to be therapists to keep their candidates from going crazy, but otherwise their job is not to explain anything. Managers are often polite to donors who try to give advice, but very rarely take it, or even listen too closely.
- Managers are not organizers, in the sense that their job is not to build a durable, stable organization to support their candidates over time. Their goal is to win this election, preferably by a big margin, which will please the candidate and look good on their resume.
- Managers do not want to end the campaign with money in the bank. They want to spend every cent they have plus a bit. They want to make sure that they have resources to respond to any development or attack anytime, but particularly in the last few weeks at the end. Putting these two pressures together, managers will withhold a little in case it is needed, but then spend money on unneeded things at the end, just to clear the books.
- Fundraisers know that donors need a reason to give. Often that will be a special opportunity (… we have a donor who will match your gifts today …), or a crisis (… our opponent just bought a zillion dollars of advertising attacking us …). Some go so far as to suggest a disaster (if donations don’t arrive before midnight tonight …). Fortunately, that last approach is fading these days.
- Field managers expect to be out of a job the day after the election. Cleaning up yard signs or returning borrowed office equipment is not their job.
- Candidates who win knew they were going to win all along. Even if the margin of victory is very small, candidates think their mandate from the voters is very strong. Candidates who lose think the problem must have been with their manager, fundraiser, or field coordinator.
Candidates who win knew they were going to win all along. Even if the margin of victory is very small, candidates think their mandate from the voters is very strong. Candidates who lose think the problem must have been with their manager, fundraiser, or field coordinator.
You’ll notice that volunteers, constituents, political party organizations, and even donors play a very small part in allocating time and other resources. The ‘professionals’ named above want the rest of us to believe that they know what they are doing, even if this is their first rodeo.
We may fantasize about candidates who are responsive to us (voters), but as volunteers, constituents, and other activists at this point in a campaign, we really have only a few very unattractive choices. We can go along with the directions of the manager, if there are any. We can operate independently and hope it helps. We can try to break through to the candidate to argue about targeting, messaging, or style. Or, we can threaten to withhold resources if they don’t do what we want.
As ‘non-professionals’ (no matter what political experience we have), our point of greatest influence therefore is after the election, before the next campaign manager is hired. That is the time we can talk to the candidate, explain how we can help in the future, negotiate partnerships, and influence future strategy.